Withering Watersheds – Issues, Challenges, Impacts, And Possible Solutions In An Era of Climate Change

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Watershed area in Kalahandi, Odisha (PC - Author)

Climate change and high human interference has effectuated the rapid degradation and degeneration of almost all of our watersheds. A watershed is an area of land that drains rainfall and snowmelt into streams and rivers. India has been divided into 6 Water Resources Region, which has been further, divided into 35 basins and 112 catchments. These catchments have been further divided into 500 sub-catchments and 3237 watersheds. These have led to widespread accelerated soil erosion, local biodiversity and have adversely impacted the lives and livelihoods of millions of poor people. Implementing good watershed management practices can go a long way in dealing with the increasing water crisis in India in recent years, especially the recent floods, cyclone and hurricanes in both rural and urban settlements. Enormous efforts by Governments and local communities will be required to reverse the changes in terms of money, technology and community engagements. 

Global Warming and Climate change are some of the effects of deforestation on humans as the trees reduce the amount of sunlight that reaches the ground giving the earth an ambient temperature. Trees also act as sinks for carbon dioxides which is a major cause of Global warming and climate change because the trees take in carbon dioxide and some of these greenhouse gases and give out oxygen. The destruction of trees would cause a great number of greenhouse gases to be released into the atmosphere increasing the rate of global warming. Healthy forests absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, acting as valuable carbon sinks. Deforested areas lose that ability and release more carbon. Also, burning and incineration of trees and related forest plants releases a large amount of CO2 that increases the rate of global warming and consequently climate change. According to scientific estimates, tropical deforestation releases 1.5 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere every year.

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The rising demand for water along with further increase in population and economic growth can result in about half the demand for water in the country being unmet by 2030. Besides scarcity, problems related to poor quality of the available water resources may exacerbate the situation. Hence, solutions are needed that address the constraints on both the supply and demand side, and for both ground and surface water. Millions of people worldwide are supported by forests globally, that is to say, many people depend on forest hunting, food, medicine, peasant agricultural practices, and as materials for their local businesses such as rubber and palm oil. But as these trees are harvested by majorly big businesses, this disrupts the livelihood of small-scale agricultural business owners making disruption of local people’s means of livelihood one of the serious effects of deforestation to humans needing urgent attention. 

On average, 28% of the geographical area of India is vulnerable to drought. In-depth studies indicate that the drought occurrences in east Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Bihar, Assam and Meghalaya are most alarming. Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha, east Madhya Pradesh, Uttaranchal, west Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh are also in alarming stage with respect to drought events as many districts in these states reported increasing trends in drought occurrences. Tropical cyclones are very common in the coastal regions of India. The coastline of India expands about 7516 km and exposed to nearly 10% of the world’s tropical cyclones. Sea Surface Temperature (SST) is a trigger to tropical cyclones for their genesis and intensification. Global warming heats both sea surface and deep water, thus creates ideal conditions for a cyclone to survive and thrive in its long journey. SST increasing is so fast and is high in the equatorial Indian Ocean compared to the other oceans. It has increased 0.6°C over the North Indian Ocean.

Today, most deforestation is happening in the tropics. Areas that were inaccessible in the past are now within reach as people build new roads through the dense forests. The world has lost about 10% of its tropical tree cover since 2000, and nearly 47,000 square miles (121,000 square kilometers) were destroyed in 2019 alone. As per estimates, about 3.9 million square miles (10 million square km) of forest have been lost since the beginning of the 20th century. In the past 25 years, forests shrank by 502,000 square miles (1.3 million square km) – an area bigger than the size of South Africa. Deforestation is a major contributor to intense heat in various parts of the world and increased rainfalls in tropical rainforest areas. This lowers the quality of living as noticed in many parts of the world, causing various problems that eventually lead to death if not handled timely. Deforestation decreases the availability of staple food and hence decreases the quality of life. With this kind of disruption done majorly by big companies, local residents have to make a choice. They can either migrate leaving their lands to “greener pasture” with the challenge of experiencing a different life. Or stay to work for the companies exploiting their land resources (forests) mostly getting petty salaries and most times they would have to work under unfavorable conditions. This in turn reduces their quality of life, one of the effects of deforestation on humans.

A study published by the FAO, November 2021 showed that parts of the Amazon rainforest that were converted to agricultural land had higher soil and air temperatures, which can exacerbate drought conditions. In comparison, forested land had rates of evapotranspiration that were about three times higher, adding more water vapor to the air. Trees also absorb carbon dioxide, mitigating the emission of greenhouse gases produced by human activity. As climate change continues, trees play an important role in carbon sequestration or the capture and storage of excess carbon dioxide. Tropical trees alone are estimated to provide about 23% of the climate mitigation that’s needed to offset climate change. The forested areas produce oxygen and absorb carbon dioxide (CO2), and are home to an estimated 80% of Earth’s terrestrial species. Worldwide, forests provide 13.4 million people with jobs in the forest sector, and another 41 million people have jobs related to forests. Today, most deforestation occurs in the tropics, but wherever the land-clearing happens it impacts our planet’s climate. Forests are an important natural resource, but humans have destroyed substantial quantities of forested land. In North America, about half the forests in the eastern part of the continent were cut down for timber and farming between the 1600s and late 1800s. Deforestation not only eliminates vegetation which is important for removing carbon dioxide from the air, but the act of clearing the forests also produces greenhouse gas emissions. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says that deforestation is the second-leading cause of climate change; the first is the burning of fossil fuels. In fact, deforestation accounts for nearly 20% of greenhouse gas emissions. 

Major causes of deforestation

Deforestation, felled trees
Deforestation, felled trees
  • Forest land being converted to agriculture and other use: Conversion of forests for other land uses, including pulp, palm, and soy plantations, pastures, settlements, roads, and infrastructure.
  • Forest fires: Each year, fires burn millions of hectares of forest worldwide. Fires are a part of nature but degraded forests are particularly vulnerable. These include heavily logged rainforests, forests on peat soils, or where forest fires have been suppressed for years allowing unnatural accumulation of vegetation that makes the fire burn more intensely. The resulting loss has wide-reaching consequences on biodiversity, climate, and the economy.
  • Illegal and unsustainable logging: Illegal logging occurs in all types of forests across all continents – from Brazil to Indonesia – destroying nature and wildlife, taking away community livelihoods, and distorting trade. Illegally harvested wood finds its way into major consumption markets, such as the U.S., China, and European Union, which further fuels the cycle. 
  • Fuelwood harvesting: Over-harvesting for domestic use or for commercial trade in charcoal significantly damages forests.
  • Mining: The impact of mining on tropical forests is growing due to rising demand and high mineral prices. Mining projects are often accompanied by major infrastructure construction, such as roads, railway lines and power stations, putting further pressure on forests and freshwater ecosystems. 
  • Climate change: Forest loss is both a cause and an effect of our changing climate. Climate change can damage forests, for instance by drying out tropical rainforests and increasing fire damage in boreal forests. Inside forests, climate change is already harming biodiversity, a threat that is likely to increase.

Effects of deforestation on humans

  • Accelerated Soil Erosion: Soil erosion is one of the effects of deforestation on humans because as soil erosion happens, both man’s movement from one place to another, agricultural production, and even access to potable water can be adversely affected. Deforestation weakens and degrades the soil. Forested soils are usually not only richer in organic matter, but also more resistant to erosion, bad weather, and extreme weather events. This happens mainly because roots help fix trees in the ground and the sun-blocking tree cover helps the soil to slowly dry out. As a result, deforestation will probably mean the soil will become increasingly fragile, leaving the area more vulnerable to natural disasters such as landslides and erosion. Due to surface plant litter, forests that are undisturbed have a minimal rate of erosion. The rate of erosion occurs from deforestation because it decreases the amount of litter cover, which provides protection from surface runoff. The rate of erosion is around 2 metric tons per square kilometer. This can be an advantage in excessively leached tropical rainforest soils. Forestry operations themselves also increase erosion through the development of (forest) roads and the use of mechanized equipment.
  • Hydrological Effects: The water cycle is one of the effects of deforestation on humans. Trees extract groundwater through their roots and release it into the atmosphere. When part of a forest is removed, the trees no longer transpire this water, resulting in a much drier climate. Deforestation reduces the content of water in the soil and groundwater as well as atmospheric moisture. The dry soil leads to a lower water intake for the trees to extract. Deforestation reduces soil cohesion. Shrinking forest cover lessens the landscape’s capacity to intercept, retain and transpire precipitation. Instead of trapping precipitation, which then percolates to groundwater systems, deforested areas become sources of surface water runoff, which moves much faster than subsurface flows. Forests return most of the water that falls as precipitation to the atmosphere by transpiration. In contrast, when an area is deforested, almost all precipitation is lost as run-off. That quicker transport of surface water can translate into flash flooding and more localized floods than would occur with the forest cover. Deforestation also contributes to decreased evapotranspiration, which lessens atmospheric moisture which in some cases affects precipitation levels downwind from the deforested area, as water is not recycled to downwind forests, but is lost in runoff and returns directly to the oceans. As a result, the presence or absence of trees can change the quantity of water on the surface, in the soil or groundwater, or in the atmosphere. This in turn changes erosion rates and the availability of water for either ecosystem functions or human services. Deforestation on lowland plains moves cloud formation and rainfall to higher elevations. Deforestation disrupts normal weather patterns creating hotter and drier weather thus increasing drought, desertification, crop failures, melting of the polar ice caps, coastal flooding, and displacement of major vegetation regimes. Deforestation affects wind flows, water vapour flows, and absorption of solar energy thus clearly influencing local and global climate.
  • Flooding: Further effects of deforestation on humans include coastal flooding. Trees help the land retain water and topsoil, which provides the rich nutrients to sustain additional forest life. Without forests, the soil erodes and washes away, causing farmers to move on and perpetuate the cycle. The barren land which is left behind in the wake of these unsustainable agricultural practices is then more susceptible to flooding, specifically in coastal regions.
  • Loss of Habitat: Loss of habitat is one of the effects of deforestation on humans. The trees of the rainforest that provide shelter for some species also regulate the temperature. Clearing of forested areas exposes the earth to unfavorable conditions which consequently leads to the destruction of innumerable species habitat as the forest sustains the life of various animal and plant communities. This causes these plants and animals to adapt to unfavourable conditions and if they cannot adapt, they either migrate to greener pastures or die off. Thus, deforestation has led to the exposure and destruction of many species which are very useful in the sustainability of the ecosystem.
  • Loss of Biodiversity: Loss of biodiversity is one of the most known effects of deforestation on humans as deforestation is a threat to biodiversity. In fact, forests represent some of the most veritable hubs of biodiversity. From mammals to birds, insects, amphibians or plants, the forest is home to many rare and fragile species. 80% of the Earth’s land animals and plants live in forests. These species are specifically supported by the rich forest environments that provide them with food and shelter. In most cases, when there is deforestation, many animals that depend on trees for livelihood are disadvantaged. By destroying the forests, human activities are putting entire ecosystems in danger, creating natural imbalances, and putting Life at threat. The natural world is complex, interconnected, and made of thousands of inter-dependencies and among other functions, trees provide shade and colder temperatures for animals and smaller trees or vegetation which may not survive with the heat of direct sunlight. To be precise, birds, reptiles, amphibians among many other classes of animals depend on trees for food and shelter. Whenever there is deforestation, these species are lost either through death, migration, or the general degradation of their habitat. It has been estimated that we are losing 137 plant, animal, and insect species every single day due to rainforest deforestation, which equates to 50,000 species a year. Others state that tropical rainforest deforestation is contributing to the ongoing Holocene mass extinction. The known extinction rates from deforestation rates are very low, approximately 1 species per year from mammals and birds which extrapolates to approximately 23,000 species per year for all species.
  • Desertification: One of the effects of deforestation on humans is desertification is when the land that once had habitable trees have been laid bare and this spreads across an area gradually transforming mostly forested areas into deserts. Deforestation has been known to be one of the major causes of desertification. Deforestation increases greenhouse effects by reducing the number of greenhouse gases that is absorbed by trees this, in turn, raises evaporation and evapotranspiration levels and increased temperatures causing long dry season periods and therefore increasing drought. The soil contains moisture that needs to be preserved and this can be done when there is sufficient forest cover. Soil is being covered by trees aiding the retention of water in the soil.But when the soil is exposed to increased temperatures in the absence of trees, the soil heats up and the soil loses moisture this, in turn, truncates the water cycle causing limited or no rainfall in a particular region which may later lead to desertification.
  • Melting of the Icebergs: Melting of the icebergs is one of the effects of deforestation on humans. Deforestation in the Polar Regions leads to the disturbance of the ice caps. Deforestation exposes ice caps to increased temperatures which leads to the melting of ice caps. This leads to increased melting which further leads to the rise in the ocean or sea level. This in turn changes the weather patterns causing climate change and intense flooding.
  • Disruption of Local People’s means of Livelihoods: Millions of people worldwide are supported by forest globally, that is to say, that many people depend on forest hunting, medicine, peasant agricultural practices and as materials for their local businesses such as rubber and palm oil. But as these trees are harvested by majorly big businesses, this disrupts the livelihood of small-scale agricultural business owners making disruption of local people’s means of livelihood one of the serious effects of deforestation to humans needing urgent attention.
  • Low Agricultural Produce: Deforestation consequently leads to varied rainfall patterns which in turn leads to extreme heat or intense rainfall. This disrupts planting and harvesting periods majorly in rural areas. This in turn affects crop yield causing low agricultural produce. Deforestation also exposes the soil to extreme conditions which kill microorganisms and aids the development and growth of plants leading to low agricultural yield. Deforestation also causes erosion which washes away agricultural produce reducing the net agricultural produce causing food insecurity making low agricultural production one of the effects of deforestation on humans.
  • Health effects: Health effects are one of the effects of deforestation on humans. Deforestation disrupts the balance of nature. Deforestation results in the death of various species of plants and animals that both helps in medicine production and indirectly prevent disease exposure to people. Deforestation also exposes plants and animals which are dangerous to human health including zoonotic diseases. Deforestation can also create a path for non-native species to flourish such as certain types of snails, which have been correlated with an increase in schistosomiasis cases. Diseases associated with forest include malaria, Chagas disease (American trypanosomiasis), African trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness), leishmaniasis, Lyme disease, HIV, and Ebola. Majority of new infectious diseases affecting humans even the ones that are communicable. The SARS-CoV2 virus that caused the current COVID-19 pandemic, is zoonotic and their emergence may be linked to habitat loss due to forest area change and the expansion of human populations into forest areas, which both increase human exposure to wildlife.
  • Economic impact: Economic impacts are one of the effects of deforestation on humans. According to the World Economic Forum, half of the global GDP is dependent on nature. For every dollar spent on nature restoration, there is a profit of at least 9 dollars. According to a report by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) meeting in Bonn in 2008, damage to forests and other aspects of nature could halve living standards for the world’s poor and reduce global GDP by about 7% by 2050. Conversion of forest to agriculture and exploitation of wood products has caused short-term gains but will lead to long-term income losses and long-term biological productivity reduction. Illegal logging causes annual losses of billions of dollars to the economy of various countries.
  • Carbon offsets: According to an FAO study, the various ventures that prompted deforestation rarely generated more than US$5 for every ton of carbon they released and frequently returned far less than US$1”. The European market price for an offset tied to a one-ton reduction in carbon is 23 euro (about US$35).

Possible solutions to sustainably manage watersheds, counter deforestation and climate change

Various watershed plus activities like formation and strengthening of women and youth groups and their associations to take up developmental activities in their respective villages, promoting sustainable livelihoods for poor and marginalized women can be supported under watershed development projects. Examples include Mushroom cultivation, Vegetable cultivation, Petty businesses like dhaba/road side hotels, vending of fancy items, tailoring, small entrepreneurship development initiatives, goattery and poultry units, etc. The Government and some of the NGOs, CSR Foundations and civil society organizations have successfully promoted such rural livelihoods.

As an individual, one can practice certain measures which will aid them in reducing their share of demands of products that need raw materials from the forests. The measures can be practiced by an individual in the following ways:

  • Spreading awareness, regarding deforestation and its harmful effects on humans and our environment, amongst their peers. 
  • Implementation of the 3 R’s – Reduce, Recycle and reuse. 
  • Reducing the consumption of products whose raw materials are extracted from the trees and forests and instead of that using the alternatives of those products. 
  • Buying and using recyclable products and recycling them after use. 
  • Using digital receipts wherever possible. 
  • Reducing the demand and usage of paper, instead opting for various digital alternatives such as using emails in place of exchanging letters. 
  • Purchasing only those wood products that are certified. 
  • Supporting organizations that are fighting against the practice of deforestation.  
  • Reducing the consumption of products whose raw materials are extracted from the trees and forests and instead of that using the alternatives of those products. 
  • Avoiding products that are just for the purpose of use and throw in order to prevent wastage of materials. Recycling all the paper and wood products in a diligent manner. 
  • Practicing and promoting the practice of afforestation. 
  • Planting more and more native trees to compensate for the removal of trees which in turn will only benefit mankind. 
  • Support in the effective implementation of the strict rules and acts by the government against deforestation.
  • Launching campaigns to promote the practice of afforestation.
  • Spreading awareness related to the harmful effects of deforestation and climate change in schools and colleges. 

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